Food that makes you go Yuck!
by Jack Thurston
The past few days have seen new revelations about the cause of the current outbreak of bird flu at a Bernard Matthews turkey farm in Suffolk. It is being widely reported that the outbreak is most likely to have been caused by imports of part-processed turkey from Hungary, which has had several outbreaks of the same H5N1 strain of the disease. Had the government allowed us to exercise a Yuck Factor test on the food we buy, this outbreak, along with BSE and foot and mouth disease, might have been averted.
Bernard Matthews is the UK’s biggest turkey farmer and a household name thanks to a long running television advertisement campaign featuring Mr Matthews himself and his ‘bootiful’ catchphrase (US readers should think of George Foreman’s grill). The company specializes in relatively low end turkey products and highly processed products aimed at children including the turkey twizzlers demonised by Jamie Oliver in his campaign to improve the quality and nutritional value of food served in British schools.
The revelations that products marketed by Bernard Matthews as ‘produced in the UK’ actually – and legally – contain meat raised in Hungary has revived concerns about ‘industrial’ food production methods that previously surfaced during the British epidemics of mad cow disease (BSE) in the 1980s and 1990s and food and mouth disease in 2001. Mad cow disease revealed that the government and farmers had been far too lax in taking action against the recycling of animal proteins into animal feeds, the process by which the deadly BSE prion was spread. The story of foot and mouth uncovered how sheep were loaded into trucks and criss-crossed the country, widely spreading the virus even before it was first reported. To date, BSE has cost the lives of 158 people who died of variant CJD, the human form of BSE. Taxpayers were hit up for billions of pounds for disease control and compensation to farmers. Ultimately, both BSE and food and mouth disease – and now the current outbreak of bird flu – were caused by practices that almost certainly would not have passed a consumer test based on the Yuck Factor. This was not possible because consumers were deliberately kept in the dark.
It is clear that there is a huge gap between how many modern food manufacturers like to present their products to consumers (natural, fresh etc) and how it they are actually produced. Even self-consciously fashionable smoothie manufacturer Innocent is prone to be evasive about the fact that much of the fruit they use in their drinks is in the form of frozen pulps. It is also clear that there is very little that can be done by way of regulation to police potentially misleading geographical claims such as ‘produced in the UK’. The case of the Bernard Matthews Hungarian imports has shown it is quite legal for the company to import turkey from Hungary, then process it into nuggets or whatever and sell them with a ‘produced in the UK’ label.
What can be done by shoppers who would prefer to buy food that has not been frozen, shipped around the world, pulped, mashed and recombined via industrial processes? What can food producers do to differentiate their products which are deliberately raised with a minimum of processing and transportation? Facing this question several years ago, the National Farmers Union launched the Little Red Tractor label which was intended to reinforce the marketing of products raised according to the standards required of British producers. This was a rather optimistic move since BSE and food and mouth disease have done little to convey an aura of intrinsic goodness to British food, nor – unlike the Italians and French – do we have an indigenous culture of high quality food. No, the answer cannot be the food patriotism recently promoted by Conservative Party leader David Cameron. ‘Buy British’ campaigns could not save the British car industry, they will not save British farming.
Much more effective is a label that relates directly to the process of food production. One of the best examples is the French Label Rouge, which has been particularly successful in marketing high quality poultry. Unlike the NFU’s little red tractor, Label Rouge does not imply ‘French is best because it is French’. Rather, it suggests that a bird which has grown slowly and been reared outdoors on a natural diet is likely to taste better. Farmers markets that only allow producer from within a 30 mile radius are a way of guaranteeing local food production for shoppers who value buying locally grown, seasonal produce.
Is there a role for government? Certainly, it is the government’s job to enforce existing laws against misleading labeling and descriptions. Maybe there is a case for a more strictly regulated glossary of what terms like ‘farm fresh’ actually mean. In the case of eggs, ‘farm fresh’ usually means that the eggs were produced by chickens housed in cramped battery conditions. More radical is a requirement that all meat products bear a label explaining where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. This might present some challenges for Bernard Matthews, in which case he would have to label his turkey twizzlers as ‘containing meat produced in more than one country’. A serious Yuck Factor!
In the wake of BSE, the traceability of cattle has become European Union policy. It has increased costs for producers, but it has also been a major weapon in disease control. A legal obligation to declare to shoppers the provenance of meat and fish products would not only help consumers make more informed choices, but it would bring the Yuck Factor into play. Government scientists are often unable to keep pace with innovations in the food manufacturing industry and therefore unable to enforce consumer protection effectively. In the absence of effective regulation, perhaps our governments should be looking to the Yuck Factor.
Endnote: for more on what to look for when buying a chicken, the following sounds like good advice, courtesy of the often maligned but redoubtably feisty TV chef Delia Smith.
What is a proper old-fashioned chicken?
1. The first thing we need to be concerned with is breeding. The bird has to be slow growing, or it should grow naturally, as nature intended. It must have a reasonable life span of not less than 81 days.
2. It needs to have its own space and not live in overcrowded conditions – and it has to be truly free range. The best type of chicken has 24-hour access to the outdoors, breathes fresh air, has access to a large field to scratch about and has a truly natural existence. It is protected from predators by an electric security fence, has access to shelter when needed, has a place to roost and a plentiful supply of grain and fresh water.
3. In this country, if you buy a chicken that is labelled ‘free range’, that can mean it’s ‘sort-of free range’ because we have a kind of cock-eyed labelling law that includes three types of ‘free-range’ chickens. So my advice is to forget the words ‘free range’ on their own and look for the words Traditional Free Range or, in some cases, Free Range Total Freedom.
4. The next question to ask is: has it been dry-plucked? Real chicken does not get dunked into hot water. For the flavour to be at its best, dry-plucking is the optimum process.
5. A little age adds a lot of flavour! If you hang a chicken with its guts intact in a controlled temperature it will, like cheese, mature naturally, which will concentrate the flavour.
I repeat, I’m all for progress, but I’ve never wanted good food to be only for the privileged few who are in the know. What I’ve observed is that the very best food producers in the world today are those who use traditional skills and methods alongside the latest technology.
The crowned king of free-range chickens is Old Fashioned Original Chicken. The method of producing this chicken has been pioneered by Paul and Derek Kelly of Danbury in Essex, and is now being adopted by other suppliers around the country.